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Snow fleas are wonder of winter

Published 9:37am Tuesday, March 26, 2013 Updated 11:41am Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Being mid-March with 16 inches of level snow still out there, I bet I am not the only Journal reader afflicted with a touch of cabin fever.

Nice warm days have been scant this winter but on the occasions when it has been pleasant, I have gone into the woods behind our house to amuse myself by finding snow fleas.

They are yet another of the intrinsic wonders of nature that I find simply remarkable.

Snow fleas, known more commonly by entomologists as springtails, are incredibly abundant terrestrial insects that are bluish in color and about a sixteenth of an inch long.

No worry though, they do not bite nor are they a danger to our pets, house plants, or our homes.

In fact, they are really not fleas at all but an entirely different order of tiny insects that break down dead plant material and feed on bacteria, fungi, algae, pollen and microscopic animals.

They prefer rich soil and for most of the year are hidden from us beneath leaves or other plant material.

They have the usual six legs but unlike most insects, they have no wings.

They are called springtails because they possess two long appendages that look like tails sticking from their abdomens.

These “tails” fold under their body and become cocked for action when grabbed and held by two specialized hooks.

When the hooks are released the critter is sent flying over the snow a half foot or more, which is about a hundred times the length of its body.

More intriguing about this insect is that on mild late winter days they become active.

As it warms and the snow softens they can be found in great abundance appearing as if someone had sprinkled black pepper or miniature Nyger thistle seed on top the snow. ‘

On these days the adult stage of this insect climbs up plant stems and onto the snow surface to mate (spring) and look for food.

If it turns cold again they just crawl back down and wait for the next favorable opportunity to come back up.

The reason they can be active in winter is because they produce a glycine-rich protein that acts as a natural anti-freeze.

As ice crystals begin to form in their bodies the protein binds to the crystals hindering them from growing and damaging their tissues.

Researchers have been able to synthesize this rare form of protein in the hopes of using it to safely preserve human organs for later transplantation and also for making higher quality ice cream — now I’m for that!.

So, when it finally does become consistently warmer and sunny, I challenge Journal readers to venture out into one of our parks or nearby wooded areas and observe this natural phenomenon of winter.

Go out around midday and begin by looking near the base of trees, fallen logs, or near a pond. They are tiny so look close.

However, don’t even think about trying to count these dark bouncing bits of life, because there will be literally thousands of them.

 

Chuck Vukonich is a retired FWS wildlife technician.

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